Differences on ‘public-safety entity’ definition may be addressable by FirstNet
Last week, we ran an article depicting the opposing positions taken by two public-safety groups—the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO)—about the definition of a “public-safety entity” that would be eligible for priority access on the much-anticipated FirstNet broadband system.
In filings as part of the FirstNet public-notice proceeding to explore legal interpretations, NPSTC largely agreed with the FirstNet staff proposal that a “public-safety entity” should be considered broadly, which would allow utilities and other critical-infrastructure entities to be considered for priority access, depending on the circumstances associated with an incident.
In contrast, APCO—a key member of NPSTC—disagreed with this notion, stating that priority access should be limited only to those fitting the traditional definition of public safety: personnel representing law enforcement, fire and EMS.
Significant in the APCO response is that it got a couple of big points out in the open, noting that wireless commercial carriers played a large part in the lobbying effort to convince Congress to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety. Indeed, most Beltway sources I’ve spoken with over the years have indicated that the D Block reallocation and the FirstNet initiative would not have happened without the support that AT&T and Verizon provided on Capitol Hill.
The APCO filing also noted that the FirstNet’s mission “is providing an otherwise unobtainable service for first responders, not competing with wireless carriers.” Indeed, the notion of government competing with commercial business is always a touchy subject, with potentially significant legal, economic and policy implications.
“Major communications carriers supported public safety’s efforts in part because they intended their efforts to result in a network that serves first responders, and not, for example, other customers of their commercial services, such as individual consumers and utilities,” the APCO filing states. “The prohibition in the Act against offering services directly to consumers supports this view.”
However, if the prioritization assurance provided to a utility or other critical-infrastructure entity is limited to mission-critical functions—for example, monitoring that determines whether the power grid is up for an electric utility, not whether the utility can conduct automated meter reading—it’s questionable whether FirstNet really would be competing with commercial wireless carriers.
While utilities and other critical-infrastructure groups utilize commercial communications services, most are not comfortable putting communications to and from their most important system components on a “best effort” communications network—a fact noted by Wendell Little of Con Edison during a recent webinar about future communications options for utilities.
A joint response from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) recognizes this limited need for utility prioritization, noting that “utility mission-critical applications consume relatively low bandwidth and can be easily accommodated on the network without impacting other important public safety applications.”
In its filing, AT&T echoes the APCO interpretation, noting that “Congress intended to limit the scope of primary users—i.e., public safety entities—to traditional first responders: law enforcement, firemen, and EMS providers.”
On the surface, that sounds like a pretty big disagreement. But a couple of sentences later, AT&T indicates it would support some critical-infrastructure entities having priority access on the FirstNet system under certain circumstances.
“There may be some consumers, such as electric utilities and transportation departments, that need to access the network in the event of a crisis to support public-safety entities,”the AT&T filing states. “These consumers could have their communications dynamically prioritized to take advantage of the NPSBN [nationwide public-safety broadband network] in an emergency, according to their need.”
It’s possible that I’m missing a legal nuance, but it appears to me that the AT&T and UTC/EEI positions are not that different. The wireless carrier is saying that utility traffic should be allowed only on a secondary basis but can be prioritized in times of emergency. The utility groups are saying that their mission-critical traffic should be prioritized, but other traffic—the bulk of the bandwidth used by a utility—can operate on a secondary basis.
This might be slightly more significant than a “distinction without a difference,” as the old saying goes, but I do see a lot more similarities than disagreements in the AT&T and UTC/EEI responses.
The bottom line is that both sides indicate there are times when a utility or other critical-infrastructure entity should be eligible to have priority access on the FirstNet system, and there are many more cases when it is more appropriate to treat them as secondary users.
Given this, for certain application that are commercially important but have no clear public-safety value, it would not surprise me to see utilities and other critical-infrastructure groups opt to run them over commercial services rather than being treated as a secondary user on the FirstNet network.
Or, the critical-infrastructure entities might be willing to pay for the deployment of additional hardened sites—bandwidth capacity—in key locations (for instance, along power right of ways) to greatly reduce the chance that they would ever be preempted by public safety, because there would be enough capacity to serve all needs. Such a scenario would be a boon to public safety, because this likely would make the system more reliable and significantly enhance capacity.
While the positions stated in the AT&T and UTC/EEI responses certainly are not identical, they seem to be philosophically close enough that a workable agreement can be forged.